You float down river on a raft of memories. They come unbidden, following no train of thought, prompted by no perceived similarity with the fragment of the world in front of you. Memories that are chicken or egg to surges of emotion. They are barely tangential, out of place, disruptive, irrelevant, puzzling. A brace of dead pheasants swinging on a hook. A damson tree weighed down by its blue-purple fruit. Hurt received or comfort issued, there is no balance, it all seems to count against you, to wound you now that you are so far from home.
As you sit by the Seine, and as you cycle back towards what you are beginning to think of as home, you try to give these diffuse memories some shape and a chronology. Those implanted by your parents: the tumbler of whisky and dry left on the floor that gave a curious child not far past crawling an early taste of what was to come; later, delirious, seeing pink elephants (so proverbial was your upbringing) lodged on your mother’s shoulders.
Then come the instances that once were remembered fresh and now are only the memory of memories: a school boy, as ripe for bruising as a peach, discovering that there is another world, and that it is harsh; the bully who laughed as he displayed the nail he had hammered through his finger.
Next, memories backed by hard evidence and faded images, occasionally strong: geographic dislocation, an uprooting, your mother’s severe reaction to the sting of the wasp she sat on, on the very day that was the last of the old life. The pain of the headaches that arose out of the worry over the mess of the beginning of the new life, your father’s betrayal of your mother and her painfully drawn out refusal to accept it in full.
No longer as confident as you were, you retreated into photography, and you remember again how it began with an experiment in making pinhole cameras at school. To your surprise, yours was one of the few successful negative prints, and so you found your way into the school darkroom, enduring not only the singing of the Irish science teacher who ran the camera club but also his embarrassing fondess for you. Somewhere at home you still have the pinhole print, but cannot remember what became of the camera, a little orange cardboard box with a snug fitting lid, charcoaled pitch black on the inside.
As the past comes closer, the memories are firmer, though now they are filtered, altered and distorted by thousands of photos taken, developed and pored over – and about the same number of drinks. Feelings come remembered at a variety of pitches: new friends, but no-one to call your own or who calls you her own, not yet, and so what else is there in your lonely desperation than alcohol and the wildness it feeds? That accounts for the slight fuzziness round the edges of these memories. You became calmer once you found a shape, a way of being, but you were still inflexibly hard, committed to the undertaking of an ill-considered rebellion which might at last give you the attention of others, but at the cost of not yet being able to grasp how you might fill out your chosen shape with any kind of grace.
Increasingly the memories are no longer simply of things on the outside, but of feelings and states of mind: love and loss and jealousy, mental dislocation, notions of normality destroyed forever, the persistent push and pull of difference from other people. Separate from most, attached to a few, you are still not sure whether you have come to France to connect with yourself, or with other people, as yet unmet.